By Marisol Bello
New York (December 9, 2007)- Squatting on the roof of a row house with a panoramic view of the sewage plants and warehouses that surround the South Bronx, James Wells sounds like a tree-hugger. He photographs the progress of seedlings he planted on the roof, one of his first “green roof” installations, and explains how roofs covered by soil and plants, more trees on the ground, and cleaner parks are key to fighting the pollution that overwhelms the neighborhood. As he speaks, a pungent rotting smell emanates from a sewage plant.
“Imagine living under these types of conditions,” says Wells, 29. “It’s one of the reasons asthma rates are so high in the Bronx.” Two years ago, Wells made an improbable conversion from convict to environmentalist. He was just out of prison after serving 10 years for armed robbery and couldn’t find a job that would pay enough to make the rent.
Then he found Sustainable South Bronx, and he found a calling. Since 2003, the environmental group has trained 70 former drug addicts, welfare recipients and convicts for jobs in landscaping, ecological restoration, green roof installation and hazardous waste cleanup.
Training for ‘green collar’ jobs
The Bronx group is at the forefront of a movement to put low-income and low-skilled workers in “green collar” jobs: manual work in fields that help the environment.
Cities trying to strengthen the local economy and go green see the solution in green-collar jobs. Jobs in the $341-billion-a-year green industry have the potential to move people out of poverty, says Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas Palmer. “This is a frontier that’s going to open for the whole country, but especially for us in the Midwest and Northeast, where we need to grow our economy,” says Palmer, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. A conference report out next month will advise mayors on how to set up green job programs.
Cities are creating green-collar jobs by partnering with employers and social service and job placement agencies:
* Richmond, Calif., spends $1 million a year to train low-income residents in the basics of construction and solar installation. City officials work with six solar companies in the San Francisco Bay Area to train participants and offer them paid internships at the end of the nine-week program.
* Oakland designated $250,000 for a Green Collar Job Corps that next year will start training unemployed people in solar and green roof installation, green building practices and home weatherization.
* Chicago has a $2 million program that has trained 265 participants since 1994 in landscaping and tree pruning and, since 2005, computer recycling and disposal of household chemicals such as motor oil and paints. Sixty percent have found jobs with the city, non-profit groups or private employers as landscapers, tree pruners, arborists and truck drivers.
Existing programs are funded by the cities or nonprofit organizations. The mayors conference is lobbying Congress for a $2 billion fund that cities could tap for their green efforts, including job training.
Green for All, a national group working to bring green-collar jobs to cities, is asking Congress for $125 million to train union members and poor people in green jobs.
Both efforts are part of the energy bill the House passed last Thursday.
Attention on the poor
“There is only so much you can do replacing fancy light bulbs and only so many bicycles you can buy before you’re done,” says Van Jones, who founded the group. “You need to look at what else you can do. … This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect low-skilled people with dignified, promising career opportunities.”
Advocates of green-collar job programs say concerns about the environment have been focused on hybrid cars, polar bears, and the melting ice cap. They want more attention on improving conditions in poor communities, which studies show bear the brunt of environmental hazards because they have more power plants, industrial warehouses, and waste facilities.
“We want to use the green-collar movement to move people out of poverty,” says Majora Carter, head of Sustainable South Bronx. “Little green fairies do not come out of the sky and install solar panels. Someone has to do the work.” Her group, which is funded through private grants, has helped almost 90% of its graduates find jobs working for the city parks department, local cemeteries and environmental groups, such as the Central Park Conservancy and the Bronx River Alliance.
Carter says the time is right because the green economy is growing. As many as 3 million jobs could be created over the next 10 years if the federal government invested $30 billion, says the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor, business and environmental leaders.
Cities are trying to capitalize on the fledgling industry. Richmond, an industrial port city on San Francisco Bay, has struggled to reinvent its economy since the 1940s, when its shipyards closed, says Michele McGeoy, director of Solar Richmond, a non-profit organization working with the city government to train residents.
Aundre Collins, 26, went through Richmond’s program in August. Like Wells, he served time in prison, which made it harder for him to find steady, good-paying work to support his wife and three young daughters. Today, he makes $500 a week as a junior installer for Sun Light and Power, a Richmond solar company. “I vowed to change my ways,” Collins says. “Now, I’m on this roof and … at the end of the day, I’ve done something good for myself, my community, my children and my pocket.”
Sustainable South Bronx
Green for All